Obama at the Crossroads

On the morning after Tuesday's two big state primary victories where Hillary Clinton revived her presidential campaign, Barack Obama's campaign strategist spoke of holding Hillary to the same scrutiny that his candidate had endured in Texas and Ohio.

"The vetting of Hillary Clinton has yet to start," said David Axelrod. "The hard questions have not been asked of Hillary Clinton. We think there ought to be the same standards on both candidates. And that should start with the release of her tax returns."

And on the flight from Texas to Chicago, Obama himself weighed in, saying, "She's made the argument that she's thoroughly vetted. In contrast to me, I think it's important to examine that argument."

And like his staff, he raised the tax return issue. "Though her campaign has tried to kick the issue down the road, Democratic voters deserve to know, right now, why it is she is hiding the information in her tax returns from last year."

Has Obama's campaign about changing American politics come down to the Clinton's tax returns? What is in the fine print? Big payoffs from Bill Clinton's life in the private sector, or potential conflicts of interest -- such as a recent New York Times profile of his ties a uranium exporter in Kazakhstan? Has that not already been reported?

When asked if their campaign was going negative, Axelrod said no in a press call on Wednesday. "That's not a decision to go negative," he said. "This is an attempt to see to it that both campaigns are held to the same yardstick. No candidate has been vetted less than Sen. Clinton. Her statements have been taken at face value."

There's no doubt the Obama campaign is frustrated they did not end the nomination race on Tuesday. But do they think they can outdo the Clintons with waging a comparative campaign, which is a nice way of saying going negative? The ease and finesse that the Clinton campaign has shown in recent days criticizing Obama's fitness for office was matched by the unease which Obama and his staffers seemed to raised the tax issue on Wednesday.

Worse, they seemed to miss their candidate's central point. If the Obama campaign is about a new type of politics, then it seems the moment has arrived to demonstrate that kind of politics under the pressures they now face. Are not attacks from both Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain an opportunity for voters to see an alternative to the politics of fear -- who will make sure children are safe at 3 a.m., as Clinton's ad asks -- with new answers to old questions?

Disappointingly, the Obama campaign has not changed its message in recent weeks. The Clinton campaign has. If anything, Clinton showed the country that she can change her message and adapt while under tremendous pressure, while pushing forward. Her ads and speeches emphasizing her national security credentials (whether exaggerated or not) and claims to be the best defender of the middle class (whether true or not) are examples of this shift.

Will the public see a similar growth from Obama? It is understandable that his 12-state winning streak encouraged an "it ain't broke so don't fix it" strategy on the campaign trail. But while Obama gave the same speeches from state to state, Clinton retooled under great stress. Ironically, there are numerous examples from his Audacity of Hope book of how he sees issues differently from cliche liberal and conservative positions that have defined U.S. politics for years. However, that specificity and fresh perspectives have been missing on the stump.

The change voters say they are ready for, to use a phrase from Obama's speeches, is not whether there is dirt in Bill and Hillary's taxes. What they seem to hunger for are different definitions of national security, economic security, government responsibility and how to achieve or work toward those goals. They like Obama's magnanimous tone and conciliatory approach.

Frank Rich, in a recent New York Times commentary, alluded to Obama's "cultural appeal" and suggested that his supporters were drawn to him by a different version of loyalty to country. That sense of patriotism is deeply rooted in the belief that government can and should work for most Americans if individuals choose to engage in programs such as Social Security, Medicare or loans for college, business or first homes. It is patriotism grounded in community values, as much as in our military might or the Constitution.

It is safe to say that Obama's fate as a presidential candidate may rest more on articulating that vision, and saying how he would take the country there, than on digging up dirt on the Clintons. But, as Wednesday began, both Obama and his staff seemed to be launching, as Axelrod put it, the comparative campaign.

It is a dicey bet when the candidate who pledges to clean up politics wades into the mud.

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